By Nina Zolotow
No one wants to “be old,” but since we lack an acceptable alternative, maybe we should focus on growing old well. Turns out it’s our choice to make.
We all know someone—a parent, grandparent, or neighbor—who seems to defy all the stereotypes about old people. Active, vibrant, engaged—they seem ageless as they go about their lives. And for us baby boomers, a generation that once hoped it would die before it got old, these folks have become role models for aging gracefully.
Of course we’ll give aging our own spin. I mean, we’ve already defined middle age upward from our 40s to our 50s and now, as the first wave of baby boomers turns 60, to our 60s and 70s. But no sleight of hand will hide the fact that age will overtake us. The trick, it appears, is to start preparing now, not through the use of ever more potent pharmaceuticals, but through relatively simple alternative solutions that include stress management, exercise, and dietary changes. Bradford Gibson, PhD, a professor at the Buck Institute for Age Research, points out that these actions have the most potential to reduce the negative effects of aging—mental and physical decline—and age-related chronic diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s.
Recent studies sponsored by the National Institute of Aging (NIA) concur. Researchers there identified three healthy, long-lived groups—one from Sardinia (an isolated Mediterranean island), another on Okinawa (an island off Japan), and the third a community of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California—and discovered several common practices. The people in all three groups, no matter how old they are, stay physically active and socially engaged, and they follow healthy diets that emphasize fresh, local produce. Although at least two of the cultures differ from ours in many key ways, their healthy practices aren’t all that difficult to incorporate.
Short of discovering the fountain of youth, these practices offer us the best chance of living life to the fullest even as we age. We have outlined eight pragmatic and effective steps you can take at any age to ensure your physical and emotional health, and to improve the quality of your day-to-day life. The best part? All the steps are natural, and most of them are free.
Be active every day
Scientific evidence shows that almost any kind of regular physical activity—running, walking, biking, yoga, or even gardening—provides tremendous benefits for your body and your mind as you age. Recently researchers at Erasmus MC University Medical Center Rotterdam in the Netherlands found that adults who exercise frequently suffer less from cardiovascular disease and more likely live longer than their couch-potato friends. According to the study, moderate activity—the equivalent of walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week—added one-and-one-third years to the subjects’ life span, and high-intensity activity—the equivalent of running 30 minutes a day, five days a week—gave them almost four more years.
Exercise does more than just help you live longer. It also increases your strength and flexibility, keeps your joints lubricated, and helps you maintain your balance. Julie Gudmestad, a physical therapist and long-time yoga teacher in Portland, Oregon, believes that the less you exercise the more dependent you’ll become. By not exercising regularly, she explains, you lose strength. And as you lose your strength, she says, “you’ll have a harder time getting up and down the stairs, getting in and out of chairs, lifting bags of groceries, and opening heavy doors.” The harder those tasks become, she warns, the more you’ll need to rely on others for help.
Gudmestad encourages her older clients to choose exercises that move their joints through their full range of motion—forward and back, side to side, up, down, and around. If you don’t do that, she says, “you can develop contractures—places where soft tissue, which includes muscle and ligaments, tightens up around your joints.” In extreme cases, contractures can make it almost impossible to “straighten your hips, lift your arms up over your head, or even stand up straight,” which can contribute to joint pain and arthritis.
A daily exercise routine also helps you improve your balance reflexes, so you’re less apt to fall and more likely to feel confident. “Falling,” says Gudmestad, “can result in broken hips, shoulders, wrists, or ankles.” And the older you get the more devastating such falls can be.
Aerobic exercise, such as walking, playing tennis, or swimming, helps you maintain good overall health. To reap the most benefits (for your body and your mind), put some variety in your exercise routine. Mix things up. Do exercises you’ve never done before—skip rope, walk backwards, grab a hula hoop. As you get older, you’ll have to explore different exercise options anyway, so if the high-impact step class you used to take no longer feels good, switch to low-impact activities like yoga, Nia, or power walking. Think you’re too old to get started? Think again. Becoming active at any age can help you regain the strength and mobility you’ve already lost and keep your heart healthy.
Recently scientists have also begun to learn about the benefits that exercise provides for your brain. Engaging in physical exercise appears to keep your brain more pliable, which helps you retain cognitive functioning and reduce memory loss. In addition, recent studies such as those by Miia Kivipelto with Aging Research Center of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, indicate that physical exercise may even help keep Alzheimer’s and other forms of senility at bay.
Finally, because exercise produces endorphins and releases pent-up stress from your body, it can have profound benefits for your emotional state. Being physically active can simply make you feel better about yourself as you create a stronger, more flexible, and more capable you.
Manage your stress
Prolonged exposure to stressful conditions can cause serious physical and emotional problems, including heart disease and high blood pressure, digestive disorders, a weakened immune system, anxiety, insomnia, and depression. And while production of practically every other significant hormone in your body declines with age, cortisol, your stress hormone, keeps on pumping. Unfortunately, the body’s ability to recover from a cortisol rush diminishes as well, so you may feel the effects of stress a lot longer the older you get.
You can manage your stress levels by getting more sleep and learning conscious relaxation techniques. These provide different benefits than sleep, including an increase in slow brain waves and a marked decrease in blood lactate, a substance associated with anxiety attacks. And you can practice conscious relaxation any time—for as little as five to 10 minutes or as long as an hour or more.
Just telling yourself to relax won’t produce the desired effect. Instead, choose a mindfulness practice such as meditation, yoga, or pranayama (breath control and extension). The trick is to create a focus for your mind and cultivate an attitude of non-judgment. My personal favorite “de-stressor” is a simple yoga pose. I lie on my back with my legs up the wall and my pelvis on a bolster (so it is higher than my head), and I breathe gently and evenly for 10 minutes. Every time I find my mind wandering, I return to watching my breath. In emergency situations when you don’t have time to lie down, stop and observe at least 12 breaths (a full inhale and exhale count as one breath), which takes only about a minute. This practice can calm you down almost immediately and stop you from simply reacting without thinking. You can also intentionally slow down. Walk instead of driving, cook slow food instead of grabbing a quick bite, and shop locally instead of heading out of town. Lie back and watch the clouds.
Keep mentally engaged
Until recently, cognitive decline and senility were considered by many to be the inevitable outcome of old age. However, scientists have found that the brain continues to be “plastic” until death. Brain plasticity means that your neural connections remain flexible and that new ones can be formed, enabling your brain to reroute connections around rigid areas or even return those areas to greater functionality.
Scientists are still discovering how best to maintain the brain’s plasticity, but they do know that both physical and mental exercise offers significant benefits. And while physical exertion of your cardiovascular and muscular systems has a positive effect on the brain, the most essential activity for maintaining brain plasticity and preventing cognitive decline is mental exercise. Taking on mental challenges, such as discussing politics or current affairs with friends, enrolling in evening classes, writing your memoirs, learning a language, or even starting a new career, keeps the neuronal connections in your brain strong, just as physical exercise keeps your muscle fibers strong.
Staying intellectually engaged might even help prevent Alzheimer’s or postpone symptoms of cognitive decline in those with the disease. In the NIA’s Religious Orders Study, a long-term study of nuns, priests, and brothers, investigators found that the average risk of developing Alzheimer’s was 47 percent lower in people who most frequently took on mental challenges.
As you age, keeping in close contact with your family, friends, and community will help you maintain strong psychological and physical health. I once read that the secret to happiness was to have older friends when you are young and younger friends when you are old. So make it a point to cultivate friends of all ages.
In addition, make an effort to participate in any kind of community activity that suits you, whether that means structuring your social life around your church, becoming politically active, volunteering at a school, joining a meditation sangha, singing in a chorus, or simply deciding not to retire from your job. Keeping socially engaged helps prevent depression—a problem that often gets worse with age—and can improve your feelings of self-worth, which may, in turn, help you maintain your physical health. And women especially find that being part of a community helps them bounce back faster when they experience grief or illness.
Keeping socially active may also keep you mentally sharp. The NIA reports that studies of animals, nursing-home residents, and community-dwelling older people suggest a link between social engagement and cognitive performance. In the Chicago Health and Aging project, older adults who had rich social networks and participated in lots of activities tended to stay mentally focused longer and had a decreased risk of developing dementia.
Be open to loving touch
Never underestimate the power of touch. Make love with your partner—often. As Andrew Weil, MD, points out in his latest book, Healthy Aging (Knopf Publications, 2005), studies show people who have healthy sex lives tend to live longer and more happily. The type and level of sexual intimacy may change as you get older, so be creative. Maybe what you really want is tender, loving touch instead of sexual intercourse. Be open and honest with yourself and your partner.
Touch, of course, is not just sexual. Don’t forget to hug your kids every day, stay close to extended family, and play with your dog, cat, and other furry (or feathered) companions. Live alone? Schedule a massage often; visit and laugh with close friends. Don’t have pets (or kids) of your own? Borrow some for the day.
What you eat—and what you don’t eat—can have an enormous impact on your overall health and longevity. A balanced, nutrient-rich diet is important for maintaining a strong immune system, cardiovascular health, and a good body weight. Leo Galland, MD, director of the Foundation for Integrated Medicine in New York City and author of The Fat Resistance Diet (Broadway Books, 2005), recommends an anti-inflammatory diet for healthy aging. He strongly believes that many age-related conditions, including weight gain, heart problems, insulin resistance, and loss of muscle mass, result from chronic inflammation in the body. Therefore, it makes sense, Galland says, that “an anti-inflammatory diet would help” mitigate those health challenges.
What constitutes an anti-inflammatory diet? Basically stick to fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (like cold-water fish—salmon, tuna, and mackerel). Limit your intake of saturated fats, refined grains (like pasta), and sugar, and ban all trans fats (found in many packaged foods). Committing to an anti-inflammatory diet takes willpower; so if completely changing your diet feels too overwhelming, start small. Shop your local farmers market, and stock up on your favorite seasonal fruits and vegetables; switch to oatmeal for breakfast instead of sugar cereals; cut back on red meat, and replace it with fish and even tofu or tempeh a few times a week.
Supplement your diet
While it’s foolish to assume you can live forever by popping pills and downing elixirs, you can support your body by increasing your intake of essential vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. As much as we’d like to think that food contains all we need to nourish ourselves, not everyone eats enough antioxidants and phytonutrients on a daily basis to maintain good health and build a strong immune system. But buyer beware! Not all supplements are created equal. Read the labels. Most experts agree that you should take a good daily multiple, which includes the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E (natural, not synthetic); vitamins K and D; and a good carotene blend (with lutein and lycopene as well as beta- and alpha-carotenes); the B vitamins, zinc, calcium, and amino acids; and CoQ10, alpha-lipoic acid, and L-carnitine. Adding an omega-3 fish oil blend plus pre- and probiotics will give your heart, brain, and nerves added protection. Weil gives specific recommendations in his Healthy Aging book, and so do the authors of The Anti-Aging Solution (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). Mushrooms, particularly those containing AHCC, and other adaptogens keep the immune system strong.
In his book Healthy Aging, Andrew Weil says that accepting the fact that you’re growing older is the first step to aging gracefully. “To my mind,” Weil writes, “the denial of aging and the attempt to fight it are counterproductive, a failure to understand and accept an important aspect of [the human] experience.”
Clinging to your lost youth will surely cause you to suffer. Likewise, relentless worry about the future will bring stress and anxiety. Focus instead on the present and take delight in everyday living, relishing friends and laughter, fall leaves and sandy beaches, great stories and beautiful music, and the occasional 70 percent chocolate. And when your needs and abilities change, make the necessary adjustments with dignity and grace.
In his translation of the Yoga Sutras (the ancient texts of the yoga tradition), master yogi T.K.V. Desikachar defines contentment as “the ability to be comfortable with what we have and what we do not have.” Adopting a spiritual practice or a personal philosophy that enables you to be present with whatever arises in your life will help support you through difficult periods and allow you to appreciate your life to the fullest. Gudmestad, the physical therapist in Portland, Oregon, knows this firsthand. Her yoga and meditation practice gave her strength during the illness and death of her beloved husband, for whom she was a primary caregiver. The whole practice, she remembers, “helped me be present with my husband and all the feelings we both had.” Some of those feelings were awful, ghastly, she says, but “others were feelings of great intimacy because I was able to share with him what he was going through.”